18-over the moors

In the end, Eliah brought me my boots. “You lost these.”

“Thank you,” I immediately dropped my saddle bags, and sat down to put them on, “I’ve been too busy to go get them.” We’d all changed wardrobe once again, and I was back in my own clothes and accoutrement and feeling glad.

“You mean it’s much harder to slip off to the stream in broad daylight when the Countess has grown as attached to you as a newborn foal to its dam?”

“The first time someone tries to kill you in your bed is a bit traumatizing,” I replied, drily.

“I suppose you would know,” said Eliah. She looked around at the clearing, now much emptier than it had been an hour ago. The tents were packed, campfires smothered, and the last of the trunks were being loaded on the carriages. Some of the guards had spent half the night rounding up the horses, so we had more than we needed, even with the prisoners and dead having already left for Wuhnravinwel. The Countess had put Pontikel and Hadella in charge of dividing the people and supplies, and they’d been quite efficient. Two of the carriages had already left. “This plan of Quill’s…” Eliah shook her head, the sun catching her golden hair. “There is no one who would believe your group is a hunting party. You don’t have any hounds or hawks.”

“The goal is to only be seen from afar.” I finished lacing up the boots and slipped the last of my knives into its hiding place.

“Hounds would be heard. Hawks would be seen.” Eliah grimaced. “You’ll look nothing like a hunt.”

I stood up, shouldering my saddlebags, repeating, “The goal is to only be seen from afar. And hopefully not by a real huntsman.”

Quill had insisted that the Countess shouldn’t go in a carriage at all, but should ride in a small party overland. No one would expect the Countess to be hidden in a small hunting party. He was very convincing, but the ensuing argument about who would go in the Countess’s entourage was tougher. Druskin refused to leave the Countess’s side, and wanted to keep me close also. Quill had intended for her to travel only with guards, but the leanyodi were horrified at the suggestion that the Countess go unattended. In the end, Druskin, Quill, myself, Galo and a guard would accompany the Countess. I supposed that was the best we could hope for.

“We’ll be moving fast, and should beat you to the meeting place.” We would ride hard, and that was how Galo had justified coming with us instead of staying with the bulk of the leanyodi to manage them.

“Rabbit,” Eliah said, “be careful. This is an ugly business. It’s not assassins, spies and thieves out here. It’s mankind at its worst.”

“You make it sound like assassins, spies and thieves are safe.”

“They are. Conviction is a mortal foe.”

“And assassins are just working for living?” I knew it was serious, but couldn’t keep the smile out of my voice.

“Fine, laugh,” Eliah punched my arm. “But do not die without giving me everything I need to solve this mystery after you’re gone. I’m not losing a payday because you wouldn’t take things seriously.”

I grinned at her and started to walk towards the horses, “I would never disappoint you. May Eloi guide your steps.”

Eliah touched two fingers to her heart.

I found the horse I’d ridden yesterday and gave it a thorough patting before I secured my saddlebags behind the saddle. I untethered the beast from the picket line and headed toward Quill’s bay. Brimborren stood out from the stocky Angari horses like a lance in a pile of swords.  Quill was busy securing saddlebags, and I almost didn’t recognize the women standing near him. Galo and the Countess weren’t wearing any make up at all. I’d not seen them in the light of the sun before. This was an even more thorough disguise than their clothes, which were the spare shirts and breeches of the staff. The clothes they wore out of the city when they visited family or friends. Without the white powder and unnaturally dark lips, and awash in the white light of day, the Countess had a simple, open kind of beauty. And Galo, standing beside her, looked almost wild with a few strands of hair blowing loose across her face. I curtsied when I arrived, “Grofnu.”

“Zephra,” acknowledged the Countess.

“Are we ready to go?” I asked.

Quill turned and gave me a nod of greeting. “Almost, Druskin is still ordering people around. Zephra, this is Lieutenant Luza,” he gestured to a soldier, who stopped fussing with his saddle to bow to me. “He will be joining us.”

“Lieutenant,” I curtsied very slightly.

“Leanyod.” The lieutenant was younger, black hair in a braid, with a little white scar slashed on his jaw.

“We should mount,” said Quill, “Druskin will never be ready to leave, but perhaps we can hurry him along.”

It took another quarter hour before Druskin pulled himself away from directing his men and joined us on his horse. We rode away from the camp, cutting in a straight line southwest over the rolling hills of grass. There was very little talk. Druskin rode in front, Galo and I flanked the Countess, Quill and Lieutenant Luza brought up the rear. It was a splendid day, large white clouds rolling across a pale blue sky while a brisk breeze cooled the touch of the sun. We stopped under a bluff for lunch, the Countess and Galo moved very stiffly and were very quiet. I felt for them, and Druskin helped them both back onto their horses when we set out again. We kept an easy pace, mostly trot and walk, with only the occasional canter to get up a steep hill or across a ditch. When the sun sank, we stopped in a little hollow near a tiny stream. Druskin and the Lieutenant hurried to help down the Countess and Galo, who both sank exhausted to the grass. Quill started building a fire and I helped the Lieutenant water and rub down the horses.

“I wish I could soak in the hot springs tonight,” said the Countess, while we ate our dinner of dried food.

Galo reached over and squeezed her hand. I gave her a sympathetic look.

“I’m sorry, Grofnu,” said Druskin, as if apologizing that he couldn’t bring the springs to her. Though, I supposed he was really apologizing that she was riding a horse to Gar Morwen instead of a carriage.

“Someone’s coming,” said Quill, standing and reaching for his sword.

*

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